Tibetan Autonomy?

Recent self-immolations by seven people in a Tibetan area of Sichuan Province demonstrate that the political status of Tibet remains a sensitive and volatile issue. The CCP crackdown on the 2008 Tibetan protests may have subdued external and visible signs of unrest, but once again, feelings of angst and anger are on the rise.

The perpetual question remains: what should China do with Tibet? Chinese prerogatives include the economic development of Tibet as well as the territorial sovereignty of the People’s Republic. However, the increasingly repressive means and the lack of sustainable economic growth continue to undermine the rationale for Chinese rule.

Firstly, Tibetans have legitimate grievances against the PRC. They claim that Han migrants are hurting the preservation of Tibetan culture. Not only that, but the preferential treatment of these migrants and discrimination toward Tibetans drives a larger wedge between the two groups, diminishing the possibility of reconciliation. Tibetans, especially after the Dalai Lama stepped down from his political role in the government-in-exile earlier this year, may radicalize in the future. While the Dalai Lama maintains a relatively conciliatory position of advocating meaningful autonomy, many Tibetans may shift toward a more defiant posture of full independence.

However, the argument for preservation of China’s territorial integrity is also justifiable. Given Western incursions in the nineteenth century, China is wary of any threat, foreign or domestic, that would diminish its territorial sovereignty. Thus, China’s historical perspective erects barriers toward Tibetan autonomy, especially as it is a “core interest.” For Chinese policymakers, Tibetan calls for self-autonomy are made by secessionist rebels that must be suppressed at any cost. Failing to do so, they argue, could result in Xinjiang and Taiwanese independence.

Nonetheless, the Chinese government’s attempts to improve the welfare of the Tibetan people have largely failed. As Sautman and Dreyer (2005) note, Chinese investment in Tibet exhibits the properties of a negative multiplier. For example, “over the previous thirty years, total industrial and agricultural output increased fourfold, while state subsidies increased by 65 times. An increase in one yuan in output value required an increase of 1.21 yuan in state subsidies” (Sautman and Dreyer 2005, 135). Furthermore, most of this investment favors PLA garrisons, a large administrative superstructure, and Han workers.

Thus, though approaching from divergent rationales, pursuing limited, guided autonomy would be in the best interests of both China and Tibet. Safeguarding against “splittist” sympathies, China should pursue a gradual policy that nonetheless allows real space for Tibetans to voice their opinions. Postponing or subduing autonomy may have catastrophic consequences: especially after the Dalai Lama passes away, who will moderate the more separatist factions in Tibet?

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